San Diego Early this year, Papa John's closed 14 pizza stores in Tijuana. You'd think the people who run Mama Mia Pizza, the locally owned chain operating in the city, would be happy to see a competitor leave town. They're not. "It damaged the pizza market when Papa John's closed," says David Vargas Armenta, Mama Mia's commercial director.
It sounds strange to us Americans who have lived through a decades-long pizza war. We're used to seeing three or four pizza-chain commercials per half-hour sitcom. We're used to receiving piles of direct-mail advertisements from Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's, Round Table, Little Caesars, and the mom-and-pop joint down the street. But a communal feeling among Tijuana's pizza hawkers is just one of the ways that the pizza business in Mexico differs from that of the United States.
Why does Vargas feel his business would be better off if Papa John's were still operating in Tijuana? "Because our competitors are not the other pizzerias in town," he answers. "We have to compete against tacos."
Vargas, a big man with a round face, sports a mop of curly hair that, were it blond instead of black, would look like Harpo Marx's. In his mid-30s, he's dressed in black slacks and a black pin-striped dress shirt sans tie. On his clean-shaven face he wears a look of sincere frustration as he talks about tacos. "Mexicans," he says, "eat tacos for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. But they only eat pizza once a month."
While untold thousands of taquerias and taco carts around the city churn out Tijuana's favorite fast food, a comparatively small number of pizza restaurants try to compete, "a total of 138 restaurants," Vargas says, among them Pizza Hut, Peter Piper Pizza, and Domino's restaurants. "As a group, they are disorganized. There are 63 different brands, but the majority of them are just one pizza place."
For a city of more than two million, 138 pizzerias is not a lot by American standards. But by Mexican standards, Tijuana is a pizza mecca. Much as good Mexican fast food grows harder to find in the United States the farther you move away from the border, pizza is a border phenomenon in Mexico. "We have 12 stores in Tijuana and 1 in Tecate," Vargas says, "and with only those 13 stores we represent 1.7 percent of the national consumption of pizza."
While Vargas acknowledges that the $12 cost of a large pizza is prohibitive for many Mexican families, he says that isn't the chief obstacle to pizza's catching on. "The biggest problem," Vargas says, "is the myth that surrounds pizza in Mexico."
While Mexicans consider a third of a pound of meat fried in lard, covered in guacamole, and wrapped in a high-carbohydrate, high-fat tortilla to be a healthy meal, Vargas says, "There is a myth that pizza is fattening, that it is not good for kids, that seniors cannot eat pizza."
Vargas believes it isn't so much pizza that's unhealthy as Mexican eating habits combined with pizza. "In Mexico," he says with a grin, "we were all taught by our parents and grandparents not to listen to the signs of our bodies. When we were children they used to tell us to eat everything that was on your plates and finish everything, even if we weren't hungry. It became a habit, and we are satisfied only when we finish everything that is served to us. So when we buy a pizza, it is a challenge to eat it all. But if you only eat what is sufficient, which is two slices -- big people like me could eat three slices -- you'll be fine. But to eat the whole pizza, that is crazy, that is madness. But we Mexicans have a psychological inclination to finish it. That is why pizza fattens you."
Though he'd like to debunk the pizza myth, Vargas is trying to work with it. To get Mexicans to start eating pizza, Mama Mia is using the same trick American pizza companies use: they're making gimmick pizzas. "We've come out with a pizza ligera, a light pizza," Vargas says. "It's got a thin, whole-wheat crust, and it comes with chipotle sauce and smoked tuna. It's become a big seller for us. And soon we're going to launch a new pizza. It's going to be a Mexican pizza with a corn crust."
The gimmicks don't stop there. "For three years now," Vargas says, "our customers have been able to order and add it to their phone bills. The service is called Eat Now and Pay Later. If you are hungry, anything and everything you can charge to your phone bill. That service was created considering how couples live today. Now the mom and the dad both work, and sometimes the kids are at home, and with a special code, they can order it; they don't have to handle any money, and they will just get billed through their phone bill. We are the only pizzeria for the last three years that has done that."
Though each Mama Mia has a few tables for customers who come in to eat, Vargas says 75 percent of the 160,000 pizzas they sell monthly are delivered. He doesn't foresee a Chuck E. Cheese's-style family pizza restaurant being successful in Mexico, though that role is being filled by another American fast-food import. "Down here, hamburger restaurants are becoming someplace you go for a family outing. You take the kids and they play for a while on the playground. Normally with pizza, you sit around it, either at your home or at the office."
Another difference between American and Mexican pizza cultures is the mode of delivery. Instead of a teenager in a Honda Civic, a grown man on a Honda 125cc motorcycle delivers your pizza in Tijuana. The motorcycles, in addition to being more economical, guarantee faster delivery in traffic-clogged Tijuana. And quick delivery, Vargas says, is of prime importance. To illustrate the point, he offers an anecdote he swears is true. "A man ordered a pizza from his office for lunch. When it didn't arrive within the 25 to 30 minutes the pizzeria had promised, he got fed up and he went home to eat. But when he got home, he found his wife with another man. She wasn't expecting him for lunch. So their pizzeria was responsible for their divorce because they didn't deliver on time."